MUSING WITH CECIL BUFFINGTON

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Musing with Cecil Buffington

A Lasting Memory

As I drive by the newly renovated old Jefferson courthouse, my mind can’t help but drift back to the most famous case ever tried in that old building. It was in mid-August of 1956.   I’ll refresh the memories of those that do remember that epic court case and update some of the younger generation on one of the most historical events in Jefferson and Jackson County history.

The Drake Murder Case ~ 1956

As a child growing up in Jefferson, I was privileged to know many of the town shakers and movers. Men like Morris Bryan, Joe Baxter, Marshall Melvin, Bobby Bailey, J. T. Stovall and many others. One man that will always stand out in my mind was Charlie Drake.

Since I was old enough to remember I had known Charlie Drake. My grandmother would get groceries from the Drake General Store about a mile and a half from our Porterville home. This was a ritual that I was a part of about once a week between my ages of six to eleven. Most of my Christmas presents would come from the Drake store. My first BB gun, a toy fort complete with cowboys and Indians, and the blue jeans and shoes I wore to school every day, all came from the Drake store.

I can remember in exact detail hearing my grandmother talk bout Mr. Drake battling a case of Yellow Jaundice sometime around the summer of 1954. She said it would turn the skin yellow. On my next trip to the Drake store I made sure I sauntered down to the auto service and gas fill-up section of the huge general store to see if I was hearing her right. I really looked him over closely, but either he didn’t turn yellow or I was to late to see the symptom, as he was just as normal looking as any other man. On my trips to Drake’s I would usually sit on a bench behind the gas tanks and watch as the cars would come and go. Mr. Drake, on many occasions would do the fill-ups. Most of the time it was one of his service attendants from inside the auto service department.

I don’t remember him calling me by my name during the entire time I knew him. He had a terrible time remembering my name so he would call me “little Hoyt or just ”Hoyt.” He had known my Dad since early in his childhood.

June 19, 1956 was a hot, muggy day that reached the upper 80s. I don’t remember what I did that particular day.  I can assume it was probably hang around the Bennett house, walk through the McGinnis woods or play baseball or softball with the Pruitt boys ( Johnny and Jimmy ), Neal Massey or some of the other neighborhood kids. I don’t think there was a pretty day that went by when we didn’t play some kind of baseball or softball game.

I can recall clearly when my aunt Nell Williamson from next door entered the front door and asked my grandmother if she had heard the news about Charlie Drake. She quickly went on to explain that Mr. Drake had been shot and killed during a robbery attempt at the Drake home sometime around 9 to 10 o’clock the previous night.

Later that day when my uncle Monroe Bennett came in from his job at Jefferson Mills, he went over pretty much all the details as he had heard them at work that day.

Almost immediately a manhunt like had never been seen in Jefferson or Jackson County was underway. Rewards were posted by the Drake family, the Sheriffs office and Jackson County totaling $ 1600. Charlie Drake was one of Jefferson’s most prominent citizens. He was a former post-master and probably its most well known merchant at the time of the robbery. He was known by many to carry a roll of $ 5000 in his shirt pocket almost every day while on the job. I always heard it was money he had been left by his father to take care of his mother. Some people said he carried the money as a reminder that he had managed that without having to use his inheritance. When the robber completed his work that night he apparently failed to look in that shirt pocket, as the $ 5000 was found by the authorities in its entirety that night. It was believed the intruder had left the Drake house empty-handed.

On August 7, 1956, Mr. James Horace Wood, who had just opened a new law practice in Commerce, Georgia received a phone call from visiting judge, The Honorable Mack Hicks, from Rome, Georgia. A suspect was going to be charged in the Drake case. The judge assigned Mr. Wood and a young Jefferson attorney, Floyd Hoard, to represent the accused. It was to become one of the monumental cases in the history of the State of Georgia and gain national notoriety as a case of criminal injustice.

The defendant in the case was an itinerate house painter from Florida. He was originally from South Carolina, but had abandoned his family several years earlier. He went to Florida where he eventually served time for Burglary. After an initial interview with James Fulton Foster, both Wood and Hoard believed there was strong evidence to prove the innocence of their new client. An amazing investigation was launched by the attorneys that almost drove them to bankruptcy and business failure. They had to deal with a community that was so caught up in their moment of grief that they threw both compassion and common sense out the door.

On August 13, 1956 the trial began in the Jefferson Courthouse. Jurors were; Mr. J. B. Chandler, Coy Short, Gilmer Martin, Otis Lacey, William Howard Sutton, Lauren McDonald, George Doss, J. M. Armstrong, Hoke Arthur, Ralph Evans, T Aubrey Benton and Emory H. Arnold. Judge J. Julian Bennett presided. It was his first case. The prosecution team consisted of Solicitor General Hope Stark and the Drake family attorneys, Henry Davis, Jack Davidson and Tom Davis. Attorneys Wood and Hoard would represent the defendant.

Dr. J. T. Stovall was the first witness called by the state and the trial was underway. The second prosecution witness was Dr. J. K. Adams. Later Hoyt Jackson, GBI Agents Fred Culberson and Louis Hightower, Mrs. Drake and an Athens county prisoner, J. C. Dameron, who proved to be a controversial and ineffective prosecution witness, when claiming Foster had ‘confessed” the murders to him in an Athens jail cell would present testimony.

The defense team called a multitude of witnesses that seemed to counter weigh the prosecution in every turn, but the testimony was abused and countermanded by prosecution objections and usually sustained by the court. It was evident early on that the court was leaning more to having the defense team prove their client innocent rather that the court having to prove the defendant was guilty. Indeed, it appeared that most of the county felt they had the killer of Charles Drake in Custody. My dad was working at Harmony Grove Mill in Commerce. He would come in around 6:30 a.m., get several hours sleep and walk to the courthouse. When the noon lunch recess came and many observers left their seat in the 200 seat courthouse, a new observer would jump into the vacated seat. My father saw most of the trial and even stayed for the night sessions as long as he could before leaving to prepare for work. 

During the defense closing statement by Foster he asked the court for permission to remove his shirt, looked directly at Mrs. Drake and said, “you testified it would take a strong man to overcome your 200 pound, over six-foot tall husband. Do I look like I’m strong enough or big enough to overcome a man that size?” Foster concluded his statement with a prayer and the judge completed his charge to the jury. At 2:30 p.m. the following day, on Saturday August 18, the jury came back in with their verdict.

The visual identification of Mrs. Drake was the motivating factor in the jury finding James Fulton Foster guilty of murder without a recommendation of mercy. Judge Bennett sentenced James Fulton Foster to be put to death between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on September 17 at Reidsville State Prison.

Immediately after the verdict, James Horace Wood sought out Judge Bennett and asked to be relieved of his court appointed obligation to the Foster case. Judge Bennett agreed to this. For Wood and Hoard the battle had just begun.

In just two days after the guilty verdict, Roy Woodall, an employee at Jefferson Mills, and Tip Wilson of Commerce and Harmony Grove Mills, called Attorney Wood and stated their desire to start a Foster Defense Fund.

They set up a meeting at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Commerce and outlined their plan before an estimated 85 Jackson County citizens. Many in attendance were not convinced of Foster’s innocence, but they were convinced that he did not receive a fair trial. By the end of September $ 2059.88 was in the fund to use in the effort to get Foster a new trial.

Meanwhile the Honorable J. Julian Bennett was up for re-election as judge. He had been appointed shortly before the Foster case, with his appointment slated to run through December 31, 1956. The polls closed with Judge Bennett being soundly defeated by Maylon. B. Clinkscales. In the Minnish-Commerce district Judge Bennett had received only 18 votes out of 2700 cast. He immediately resigned his post and Judge Clinkscales took office.

Solicitor General Hope Stark, after serving 20 years, did not seek re-election. Alfred A. Quillian was named to this post. Floyd Hoard was appointed County Attorney due to the on-going illness of George Westmoreland, his father-in-law.

A tense situation developed when Wood visited Foster at the Gainesville jail where he was being held while awaiting the results of a new trial petition.

Foster told Wood that Hoard had visited earlier in the week and asked him if he wanted to plead guilty during the second trial. Hoard told him it would very likely be to his advantage to do so. Wood was livid. As lead attorney in the case he had the authority to replace Hoard if he so desired. The next morning when he met with Hoard that was his intention. Hoard did not deny that he had asked Foster to consider a guilty plea bargain for a life sentence. Wood asked, “how can you justify asking that boy to plead guilty to a murder when he is innocent?” Hoard fired back, “I feel it’s the only way to save his life. As long as you have Mrs. Drake sitting in that chair and pointing out Foster as the man who killed her husband, he is going to be found guilty.” Wood thought for a moment on his words and asked, “do you think he is guilty?”

“No, replied Hoard, I don’t think he’s guilty. But I can’t think of any other way to save that boy's life.”

Wood nodded his head slowly from side to side and said, “Pleading guilty to a murder he did not commit is not the way to resolve this. We have to keep hoping and pushing until we find that miracle that will swing this thing our way. It’s out there and we have to find it.”

Hoard was proven right. When Mrs. Drake again pointed at Foster as the man that killed her husband that hot June night in 1956, a guilty verdict was assured.

That new trial was held in late May of 1958. James Fulton Foster was sentenced to the electric chair for the second time. Judge Carlyle Cobb set the date as June 21. Foster had 21 days to live.

Another appeal set aside the death sentence for six months, but there was not any movement as to locating a viable suspect for the Drake murder as the months moved by.

On October 16, 1957, the first break in the case came when a prisoner named Lonnie Neal brought up the name of Charles ( Rocky ) Rothschild. His girlfriend Mavis Smith backed up his story. He claimed that Rothschild had bragged to him on at least four occasions that he killed a Georgia man. He had also mentioned that Georgia had a man convicted for the killing. While never mentioning the name of Charles Drake, Neal was sure it was the same case.

Rothschild was questioned about the case and denied any involvement. The evidence began to build against the former Illinois policeman when another informer, Jett Allen Smith came forward with information that Rothschild had been in the Commerce area around the time of the attempted robbery.

A .357 Magnum formerly belonging to Rothschild was identified as the murder weapon and other evidence was quickly becoming credible. On June 16, Rothschild pled guilty to robbing the Dobson cotton gin in Lavonia, Georgia. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Then it happened!

On July 4, 1958, Charles Paul Rothschild signed a full confession at Columbia, South Carolina, in the presence of J. P. Strom, Chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Captain Jack Fowler of the Sheriff’s Department of Spartenburg, South Carolina; B. B. Bockman, Sheriff of Spartenburg, South Carolina; Agent B. S. Moss, South Carolins Enfrocement Division; and John B. Brooks, Sheriff of Jackson County, Georgia, admitting that he killed Charles H. Drake. In the confession he implicated a well-known Commerce boot-legger, A.D. Allen as his accomplice. He claimed that Allen planned the robbery, drove him to the scene of the crime and picked him up afterwards.

On July 8, 1958, Rothschild was brought to Jefferson to re-enact the slaying of Charlie Drake.

Rothschild and Foster met for the first time on this date in front of the Jefferson court house. Afterward, Rothschild took officers to where he had discarded the clothes he had worn on the night of the murder. He claimed to have thrown the murder weapon off the Gunion Bridge over Sells Creek. The weapon he described was never found.

At the Drake house he met Mrs. Drake, apologized for his acts and asked for her forgiveness. Mrs. Drake left the room quickly, weeping.

On July 19, 1958, in a hearing before Judge Cobb, Foster was granted a new trial. The county wanted to just drop the charges and move on from there. Attorney Wood was not receptive to this suggestion. He wanted a trial by jury to assure this was the closing of the two year ordeal.

On August 5, 1958, Rothschild and A. D. Allen were indicted for the murder of Charles Drake. On August 11, the trial for Allen began. After twenty-two hours of deliberations on August 14, A. D. Allen was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

In August of 1959, Allen was granted a new trial when it was held that there was insufficient evidence to link Allen with the crime and that the jury had been inadequately attended by bailiffs at its place of lodging to prevent outside contact.

Rothschild was convicted and sentenced to serve at least fifteen years of a life sentence before parole eligibility.

In 1959, Rothschild repudiated his confession. He backed off his claim that Allen was his accomplice. This resulted in all charges being dropped against the Commerce defendant.

The Foster trial was held shortly after the Rothschild and Allen sentencing.

On September 12, James Fulton Foster was found “not guilty.” The hastily formed jury never even left the jury box. James Fulton Foster was free ~ physically and legally.

In 1959, Attorney Wood prepared a resolution calling for the State of Georgia to compensate Foster for the two years he had spent in jail while falsely accused. The lower house approved a $ 2500 payment that was not approved by the Senate. Foster did not receive a dime for all his agony.

James Fulton Foster returned to his family in Greer, South Carolina. He told his story at numerous churches around the state and in Georgia. He came across as sincere, dynamic and convincing.

While I was not as emotionally caught up in the Foster proceeding as my family and older friends around Jefferson, I was able to form my own opinions as I heard and read about the ordeal.

My father, uncles’ Monroe and Robert Bennett and my grandmother. Mrs. Emma Bennett, felt from the first few days of the trial that Foster was innocent. Uncle Monroe contributed to the Foster defense fund. My dad, while sitting in on much of the trial would say on many ocasions,  “they’ll never convict that man based on what I’m hearing in that courthouse.”

I, of course, believe Foster was innocent. While I’m convinced that Mrs. Drake honestly felt she was identifying the right man, it was somewhat obvious that her identification alone should not have sentenced a man to death. I once heard my grandmother say, “I know God has a reason for this, but I can’t see any reason for putting a woman through what she ( Mrs. Drake ) has been through.”

My family continued to purchase our groceries and other items from the Drake General Store. Mrs. Drake would be in the store several hours each day, but she always looked tired and worn out.

One thing I picked up on even at my young age. When Charlie Drake died that night, a big part of Mrs. Drake died with him. I don’t think I ever saw her smile again. I’m sure she probably did smile from time to time, I just never saw it.

When her son-in-law, Joe Davis finally took over the business, it relieved much of her working burden and she became less and less visible in the community.

Now when I drive by that Drake house on the Gainesville road I think back to that night and the pain and misery it caused so many Jefferson citizens.

I want to encourage all Jefferson citizens to read the book, “Nothing but the Truth,” by Judge James Horace Wood as told to John M. Ross published in 1960. It is an extraordinary account of the Drake murder case. Many of the facts in this story are taken from that novel.

I would meet Judge J. Horace Wood when working in shipping with Wayne Poultry in Pendergrass in the early 70s. He had two beautiful German Shepard dogs. He would come by the plant to purchase chicken necks. He always bought two 80-pound boxes at five cents per pound. He said he cooked them for his dogs and they loved them. One day, while he was waiting for his product to be loaded into his car boot, I asked him if he still heard from James Foster. He smiled as he said, “Every August I get a card from him. It always reads, "Doing well. Thank you! James.”

I guess that pretty well said it all.

During my lifetime, I have only three people that I personally have known that have earned what I refer to as “Ultimate Lifetime Respect and Admiration.” Those three people are Morris Bryan, II, Frank Perdue, and Judge James Horace Wood.

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